A Talk with Mr. Bonar Law (1917)

Mr. Lloyd George's flirtations with the All-for-Ireland policy passed through three phases, each of them seemingly favourable to that policy, but all of them, whether through ignorance or design, fatal to a fair trial of its proposals. He was captivated by our concessions to Ulster, and proposed the Buckingham Palace Conference to discuss the only concession we declared to be inadmissible. He next invited us to contemplate with him the splendid phantom of an "Irish Provisional Government," and abandoned it to fall back upon a Partition Conference even more noxious than that of Buckingham Palace. No sooner had that manoeuvre also come to grief than he now broached a proposal so like unconditional adoption of our programme of "Conference, Conciliation and Consent" that the mass of our own friends marvelled we did not at once embrace it with effusion. It in reality perverted our programme of a settlement to be sought by a small body of notables, acting under the control of a Referendum, into an unwieldy Convention of politicians discredited and detested by the country, and so constituted that it must ineluctably eventuate in Partition or in nothing.

Some months before he had committed himself to the new adventure, I made a last attempt to persuade him in what direction lay the true and only road of safety. It may be convenient to insert here my précis (made, as usual, at the moment) of an interview I had with Mr. Bonar Law on March 25th. He had complained, in plaintive terms, in the House of Commons that no Irishman of any section came near him or the Government to offer any suggestion since the collapse of the "Headings of Agreement" negotiations in the previous summer. It may be recollected that when in my interview of May, 1916, with Mr. Lloyd George I suggested the advisability of waiting for six months of gentleness and appeasement in Ireland before attempting a settlement intended to last, Mr. Lloyd George foretold that "in six months the war will be lost, unless something is done at once." Nothing was done and the war was not lost, and although Mr. Wilson was elected to the Presidency in despite of England's grotesque intrigues to put Mr. Roosevelt in his place, Mr. Wilson was on the eve of throwing America's broad sword into the scale. He was, however, still hesitating, in view of England's cat-and-mouse play with Ireland, or we should probably have been importuned with no further languishings for an Irish Settlement. There was, consequently, still the imperious necessity that "something must be done at once" and this time we were dealing not with a subaltern but with a Prime Minister in the saddle for the great stakes of his life, and with a Chancellor of the Exchequer only less important, to whom as the second of the Triumvirate of which Sir E. Carson was the third, Mr. Lloyd George was indebted for his triumph over the easy unobtrusiveness of his late Chief. So long, therefore, as the faintest chance remained of turning to account the lesson taught by the discomfiture of the "Headings of Agreement" intrigues, I resolved that Mr. Bonar Law must not be allowed any right to complain of being left without a new insistance upon that advice, however unpalatable, of whose soundness the Ministry had received a telling confirmation. Of Mr. Bonar Law's own straight forwardness, courage and loyalty of character, I had preserved an impression sufficiently warm to make communication with him a matter that required no finesse.

25th March, 1919.

Saw B. L. in Downing Street at eleven o'clock. Told him I wanted nothing; consequently my personality might drop out of the controversy. He expressed great readiness to hear proposals, saying he hoped I might take a more sanguine view than the last time. I said time had proved it was better to depress him than to mislead him. He said, it was, of course, an almost hopeless business. When I proceeded to read my proposals, prefacing them by saying their basis was that Partition in any shape was undiscussable and impossible, he at once broke in : "I am afraid anything would be quite impossible for Ulster except Partition. I am only now speaking for myself. I am to see George presently." I urged that, while the difficulty was now infinitely greater than it was a few years ago, the attempt to try concessions to Ulster had never been made, and things could not possibly be worse if the attempt failed. He intimated that C. and Craig were most willing but were certain they would be thrown over in Ulster and that Ulster would rebel the moment there was any attempt to bring them in. I said that that could only be a matter of prophesy which I for one utterly disbelieved. But why not bring matters to a test by proposing to Ulster some great scheme of concession approved by the most enlightened Irish Protestants, North and South, and then warmly recommended by the Imperial Conference? He could not be got to explain what was the difficulty about trying. He fell back upon the same arguments in almost the same words he had used last year—the question of the two distinct races, etc. I pointed out it was not here a question of two races, but of three, and that the third (the Presbyterians) had been our steady allies up to a few years ago. That no difficulty had been found in the South in absorbing the Normans, the Adventurers in Sir Walter Raleigh's time and the Cromwellians; that as to the North the Protestants had as a matter of fact taken the lead in the two greatest Nationalist movements of a century ago—the Dungannon Convention and the United Irish movement in Belfast; that if Unionists would only read the Unionist Lecky I would defy them to repeat there was any unbridgable gulf between the three races. He said the United Irish Movement was only a phase of the revolutionary movement in France, and that the Ulster Dissenters were still above all else democrats and would stand no subjection; that the feeling among the gentry in Ulster was much more pliable, but that the workmen in Belfast would simply hear of nothing. He repeated a remark of his before that, to show how completely different the two races were, he had gone from Glasgow to Belfast, and it was exactly like being in the same city. I remarked that was very largely a mere question of accent; that Devlin was almost unintelligible in the South for the same reason. His conclusion was so ill-founded that it was actually Scotch artisans imported from Glasgow that saved Devlin's seat. I read for him my proposals and suggestions as to the type of men who might form an Irish Conference. He said all would seem excellent, if we were dealing with reasoning beings, but we are not. I asked was not that giving up all hope between the two countries in despair and without even making a trial? I said our people could not fight England, but they could worry the life out of her—twenty millions of them scattered through America Canada and Australia. Pointed out also that if the United States came into the war, they would insist upon a voice at the Peace Conference, and would make Plunkett's policy of Dominion Home Rule practical politics, and they would have Ireland's eyes turned from this Parliament to the Peace Congress. He said the sympathy of America with Ireland had become less active of late years, and would be quite satisfied if Home Rule were granted to the parts of the country that desired it. I said he little knew American politicians, if he believed they would not be guided by Irish opinion, and the Irish in America far from being appeased, would be goaded to madness by any division of their country. I pointed out also that it was the hope of a peaceful Irish settlement alone that had for years tranquillised the Irish in America and reduced the Clan-na-Gael influence to as small proportions as the Sinn Féiners in Ireland until the collapse of Parliamentarianism gave them their chance; that if they now found their moderation misunderstood, the consequences would be disastrous. He repeated that there was no use in arguing with the Ulster men; Heaven only knew what might happen if their men came home from the war and found there had been any giving way. I reminded him that argument might apply with much more seriousness to the Nationalist soldiers from Ireland, England and the Colonies who were at least five times as numerous as the Ulster Unionists. He said although they had pledged themselves to make the attempt, he did not at all know whether they would not have to abandon it. He intimated that his own notion was to renew the proposal as to the six counties, with power to any county to join the Irish Parliament after five years, if there was a majority of even 5 per cent. in favour of doing so. That was practically last year's bargain, minus a possible reunion of Tyrone after five years.

I told him I believed as long as the world lasted, they could never get the Irish race to tolerate that, or any other form of Partition, and that there would be absolutely no section of Irishmen at their backs except the placehunters; and no self-respecting Nationalist could ever raise his voice again for peace between the two countries; that the universal impression would be that such a proposal would not be a genuine attempt at a settlement, but only intended to throw dust in the eyes of the Americans in order to bring them in. We got talking over the general situation. I explained to him the difference between the Republican fighting party which I believed to be still comparatively small and the sentiment of Sinn Féin, which included the best part of the uncorrupted portion of the country. He said they had no leaders. I said in the sense of politician leaders that was true—that, if they had leaders of more acute political intelligence, the constitutional movement would by this time be reconstructed and be a greater force than ever and the Easter Week Rising would never have taken place. He said the fact appeared to be that nobody had any power at present of getting any settlement enforced. I agreed that that was lamentably true, but might be remedied if some great agreement by consent was once put before the country by Irishmen who were not professional politicians, and if in this way new men and younger men were attracted into the country's service; but this could only be done if the Government pledged themselves to see an Irish settlement by consent resolutely through, no matter what any set of politicians did. Obstructionists could never face a General Election if we got thus far. He told me ——— one of my most important friends, had given him to understand that Redmond's party would come back from a General Election with no greater loss than 10 or at most 20 seats. This estimate seemed to have made a most unfortunate impression upon him. Electoral calculations are the morals of Ministers. I replied that it would be idle to prophesy in a state of anarchy such as now prevailed, but my own forecast was a very different one indeed. I could not see how more than ten of them could come back, even if the Bishops should deem it prudent to renew their doubled subscriptions in support of them. He asked what about the Bishops—did they really desire a Home Rule settlement at all?—did they really want Catholics and Protestants to come together? I replied that I had no means of judging their inmost thoughts; I doubted whether they themselves quite knew where they stood; but if there was any foundation for the suggestion that they did not desire Home Rule, it was surely a good argument with Irish Unionists that their power in an Irish Parliament was not likely to be so overwhelming as they sometimes apprehended. Of one thing he might make quite sure—that not even Dillon's one fast friend among them, Dr. ——— would ever publicly pin himself to any Partition proposal however plausible. We talked matters over for an hour and a half. He asked for my written proposals and suggestions for Conference, and said he was to see L. G. shortly after and would submit them.

To the end he seemed obstinately of opinion, it must be Partition or nothing; but spoke with great hopelessness of that and of the war, and as he accompanied me to the hall-door said it would perhaps be better to do nothing, if they would be satisfying nobody. I said better nothing than mischief.

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The Irish Revolution

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William O'Brien was a County Cork M.P. who participated in the negotiations for Home Rule in Ireland. In this account, first published in 1923, he provides an insight into the politics and politicians of the time - John Redmond, John Dillon, Arthur Griffith, Sir Edward Carson, Bonar Law, Lloyd George, Winston Churchill, etc. - and gives his analysis of the origins of the Easter Rising of 1916 and the subsequent Irish Civil War. From his own perspective, O'Brien was very much anti-Partition, and was evidently frustrated at the failure to give adequate reassurance to the Northern Unionists.

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